Therapists thought Naika Venant might flirt, or flaunt herself or misbehave on Facebook, so child welfare administrators forbade her from using the platform.
They never thought she would kill herself there.
A survivor of physical and sexual abuse, Naika had bounced in and out of state care since 2009. Since April alone, her mother’s attorney says, the girl had hopscotched among 10 different homes and shelters, including a hotel and a child welfare office building. Her sojourn ended in the bathroom of a Miami Gardens foster home, where she hanged herself outside a shower stall — while live-streaming the event on Facebook. She was 14.
Howard Talenfeld, who is representing Naika’s mother, said blaming Facebook would be misplaced. “We first need to look more than anywhere else at what is going on in our backyards in Florida,” he said. “Facebook is a method of communication, a method where the message was sent, but the reality is Facebook didn’t rape her. Facebook didn’t fail to provide her services. Facebook didn’t take her into care promising her a better life.”
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I am sick and devastated. I have trusted Florida foster care people to care for my baby. Instead she kills herself on Facebook.
Naika Venant’s mother, Gina Alexis
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Naika’s mother, Gina Alexis, sobbed as her lawyer recounted her daughter’s ordeal. “Naika was my baby girl,” she said as she tried to catch her breath amid heaving sobs. “I am sick and devastated. I have trusted Florida foster care people to care for my baby. Instead she kills herself on Facebook.
“I have to bury my baby,” she said.
Before Alexis could finish her sentence, she broke down and had to be ushered out of the room. After composing herself, Alexis returned, and struggled to say something, anything about her daughter: “She loved to smile.”
A spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children & Families declined to discuss the case or release Naika’s records, citing the confidentiality of child welfare records.
Naika first came into state care in January 2009, at the age of 7, following allegations that she had been the victim of excessive “corporal punishment,” said Talenfeld, who is president of Florida’s Children First. Talenfeld said that was the first time the system failed Naika.
While in state care, Naika got a urinary tract infection. Once reunified with her mother, she shared a secret that explained the condition: she had been sexually abused. A police investigation, Talenfeld said, revealed that she was raped by a 14-year-old boy in the same home.
The molestation, Talenfeld said, scarred Naika deeply, leaving her unable to distinguish between appropriate, and inappropriate, behavior. “It became virtually impossible for [Naika’s] mom to address these issues and she didn’t get the help from the child protection system in Florida that was supposed to help her. She didn’t get any help,” Talenfeld said.
Naika ran away, and was returned to foster care. Talenfeld said the local foster care agency was supposed to provide the girl with counseling to address her difficult behavior and emotional unrest, but the treatment never came, and Naika worsened. Nevertheless, in July 2014, she was once again reunified with her mother.
Talenfeld said her mother began noticing Naika displaying inappropriate sexual behaviors through texts and on Facebook, and she tried to discipline her. That led Naika to run away again. Naika was once again taken into foster care last April. In August, she was placed in a psychiatric hospital under the Baker Act, Florida’s involuntary commitment law. From April until her death last weekend, she had been moved at least 10 different times.
“She came into foster care where she was supposed to be protected,” he said. “She was supposed to be a child who had a future.”
Elizabeth Jordan was Naika’s art teacher at Young Women’s Preparatory Academy, a Little Havana magnet school where the teen was enrolled in sixth, seventh and part of eighth grade. The school’s mascot is a butterfly.
“She made friends. She was very well-liked here,” said Jordan, who added Naika left the school around the end of September. “The entire school is grieving.
“This school has been in tears for two days,” she added. “She was a wonderful student, and we loved having her.”
Jordan said teachers knew that Naika was “struggling” in her personal life, but at school, she was a gifted student who excelled at several of the creative arts. “She was a wonderful artist,” Jordan said. “One of her pieces ended up being submitted to a competition. She was very creative.”
“She was a bubbly, sweet girl,” Jordan said. “We really didn’t see any signs of this.”